Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin recently authored an op-ed column in The New York Times arguing that it was deeply irresponsible—"morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable," to borrow his words—for media outlets to publish excepts from files and e-mails leaked from Sony Pictures Entertainment, in what is likely the largest corporate hacking scandal ever. He accuses the press of betraying ethical principles just to earn "a nickel," as he puts it.
Mr. Sorkin is known for his award-winning screenplays, such as the one he wrote for the 2010 film The Social Network. Personally, I'm a fan of The West Wing. Yet no matter which fast-paced dramatic narrative of Sorkin's you watch, there's always a point where his preachy dialog is finally too much—and such was the case on December 14, 2014 in the Times.
Sorkin specifically argues that the e-mails fail to contain "any information about Sony breaking the law," "misleading the public," or "acting in direct harm to consumers." He's wrong on all counts. In fact, both Sony Pictures and Sorkin's production of The Social Network broke laws, misled the public, and acted to harm consumers. Consequently, the press has an ethical obligation to report on the disclosures, and so far, it hasn't reported enough.
A large part of Sony's legal problems stem from the fact that The Social Network claims to be based on a true story. It's not. It was based on a book proposal by Ben Mezrich called "Face Off," later purchased by Random House, which paid Mezrich a $1.9 million advance for his work. Before Mezrich's largely imagined book was finished being written, Sorkin was brought in to write the movie's screenplay. To account for enormous gaps in their research—on July 29, 2009, Sony lawyers complained "We should discuss whether it's worthwhile for us to cull through thousands of pages of court docs — which neither Mezrich nor Sorkin did"—both Mezrich and Sorkin invented a huge quantity of detail for both works, including major plot points, which rendered each story objectively false. Sony's lawyers were on constant guard due to the likelihood of being sued, either by Facebook or by characters in the film. Nonetheless, Sony approved a "based on a true story" disclaimer, and it tolerated Mezrich's repeated later false claims that his book was "true," "accurate," and "non-fiction." Simultaneously, Sony's lawyers reported internally that executives were "not comfortable just relying on the Mezrich book," which clearly had not been fact checked. At the very least, all of these actions violated the Lanham Act, which prohibits false advertising.
It's not like Sony didn't know it could get into hot water; the e-mails are full of discussions of defamation and indemnification agreements, including Sorkin's. Unaware that Sony and Random House had already confidentially settled a lawsuit threat with another character caught up in The Social Network for $1 million, I filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 against Random House, Sony Pictures, and Mezrich, which I lost because the judge, Robert B. Collings, cited a wiki (not even Wikipedia) to define the term "non-fiction." He then compounded his error of using a questionable source by mis-typing the link to the real source in his court order. Instead, the court order directed the public to a completely different page on the wiki with a completely different definition of non-fiction, which no one realized on appeal was not the same one the judge had looked at. Judge Collings refused to ever correct his mistakes, and neither the First Circuit Court of Appeals nor the United States Supreme Court saw any problem with using wikis in judicial opinions, or mis-typing links to them.
Moreover, the leaked e-mails demonstrate that Sony was looking to score points with Facebook—not to portray an accurate, or even an interesting, story. On May 20, 2010, the movie's producer, Scott Rudin, e-mailed Facebook Vice President of Communications and Public Policy Elliott Schrage. "Mark is always the smartest, most shrewd, most visionary person in the room. Your big concerns—his relationship to money, what he actually did. In inventing Facebook, how gifted he is—all of those are well-handled and articulated as I think you would want them to be… I think—I think and I hope—it's what I told you to expect. And it's exactly the script, too." Facebook executives Sheryl Sandberg and Ted Ullyot also had plenty to say that was incorporated into the movie, which Sony went to considerable lengths to hide. This smacks of sycophantic drivel, and puts The Social Network in a much different context—one that suggests that viewers were duped into watching an award-winning, multi-million-dollar infomercial.
Why does this matter? Because what the movie portrayed regarding Facebook's origins is not what happened. In fact, it's not even close. Yet the movie became the company's official birth narrative—misleading the investing public into buying into a hugely problematic initial public offering involving billions of dollars, propelling Mark Zuckerberg to a level of genius-stardom that he hardly deserved, and helping to inflate a technology bubble that has spawned huge waste and hardly any real innovation.
The public is always harmed when the media, or any corporation, actively misleads it, let alone sets a precedent for censorship. How Mr. Sorkin could believe otherwise after writing so much feel-good liberal banter on The West Wing is difficult to reconcile. How he could willingly take part in it personally is another question, but it probably has an easy answer.
Mr. Sorkin probably just wanted to earn a nickel. And though I think the hackers were clearly wrong to do what they did, at least with this level of transparency, we'll know exactly how many made their way to his bank account.